Dear Margo: Strangled by Apron Strings

Margo Howard’s advice

Strangled by Apron Strings

Dear Margo: Two years ago, my mother got it into her head that I should give up my career in law and postpone my wedding in order to become a bureaucrat! I didn’t understand her fascination and made it clear that I wanted to make my own career decisions. Let’s just say she wore me down.

She stopped talking to me, refused to attend my wedding and was rude to my fiance’s parents when they called to find out what was going on. I know it’s easy to say this, but I am absolutely sure I was subjected to emotional abuse. I was told I was an ungrateful child undeserving of any respect and love due to my refusal to follow her “motherly wisdom.” Her sister initially tried to help me, but backed off when my mom threatened to break off relations with her, as well. I did not want to lose my mom and disappoint her for the rest of my life, so I gave up my career, and I have postponed my wedding (indefinitely).

I’m now preparing for the tests to qualify as a civil servant. My mom, of course, is elated. She has moved in with me to help me prepare. I now often find myself inexplicably upset — with her, with myself, with everything. It’s a wave of rage that ebbs and flows but never goes away. I want to shake her hard and make her realize what she has done, but I am tired of fighting her. She has always maintained that what she’s doing is not selfish because she’s doing it for my benefit. I am starting to think I will just have to accept that logic before I drive myself mad with anger. What do you think I should do? — Crushed

Dear Crushed: Sever relations with your mother, move her out, go back to the law, and marry your guy — if he’s still around. Oh, and get into therapy. Without getting into your mother’s need to control you (and intentionally or not ruin your life), the scenario you describe is quite nutty. If you’re old enough to be a lawyer and to marry, you’re old enough to make your own choices, and they should be choices that do not fill you with rage. Run, my dear, from your very toxic mother, and find a good therapist. — Margo, decisively

Quite a Strange Granny  

Dear Margo: My mother (who lives with us) claims she loves my children very much, but whenever she and I have a disagreement, she wants nothing to do with them. She chases them away or ignores them. As soon as we talk and things are smoothed over, she then returns to being very loving to them. What I would like to know is: What is that kind of love called? — Resentful

Dear Re: To my knowledge, there is no psychiatric name attached to this kind of behavior. I, myself, would call it immature, narcissistic and tiresome — and I’m not even sure it can be considered love. The rough equivalent in a marriage would be a couple who thrive on conflict and, in essence, get divorced several times a day. I am sorry that there is such commotion, and my hunch is that your mother will not change. — Margo, regrettably

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

Click here to follow Margo on Twitter

23 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    Letter #1:  You do not say how old you are.  You do not specify what your career in law amounted to…whether you are a member of the bar or if you are a legal assistant or legal secretary.  If you are a lawyer and passed the bar I cannot imagine why you need your mother’s help to study for a civil service exam but maybe those exams are harder than bar exams.  But whatever your former career was, if you loved it, you shouldn’t be forced to leave it by your mother nor should you postpone a wedding.  I suspect you have been giving into your mother’s emotional blackmail your entire life and breaking the ties is obviously not easy for you.  Get yourself to a therapist now to get the strength to do what should have been done long ago…which is kicking this crazy toxic woman to the curb.  Her excuse that she is not selfish *because it is for your own good* is insane.  Your own good is your happiness. You are not happy.  Ergo what she is doing is not for your own good so there goes her rationale out the window and she should go out of your door and if she continues to meddle, out of your life.
    Letter #2:  Another case of emotional blackmail.  Kick her out too if she doesn’t start behaving.  She is a guest in your home and should treat you, your husband and children with respect.  Punishing your children to punish you is sick sick sick.  You don’t need sick in your life. 

  2. avatar D C says:

    It’s Crazy Mother Day.  I wonder why some women just lose it like that.  My own mother felt inadequate her whole life for lots of reasons, and when I married she really pulled away because she felt not-as-good-as my inlaws.  When the kids came along it wasn’t any better.  I suppose that’s better than being overbearing as the mothers are, but I am left trying to help my kids understand that grandma USED to be so much more fun.  They just can’t see the woman I remember from my childhood.  That said… LW#1 should take Margo’s advice and do it fast.  LW#2 should find a counselor they can go to to talk this issue out — because like Margo said, it sounds like a married couple in conflict, and if mom is living with them, that kind of conflict is bad for the whole family.

  3. avatar Cindy M says:

    L #1: I remember Karen, who turned down the marriage proposal of a very nice, secure, stable man because Mommy didn’t want to be “left alone” (even though Mom had managed to keep another daughter at home). Of course Mom had had marriage, sexual fulfillment, children, a nice (by Midwestern middle-class standards) home; everything she wanted to deny her daughters. Karen found out, a year later, that her ex-beau was engaged. She panicked, asked to speak with him, pleaded for them to reunite and marry. Ex-beau said no; he was in love again, the wedding date was set. Last I saw Karen, she’s walking lonely streets in a small Midwestern town in frumpy brown clothes. The moral of this story? You get it. Oh, and she’s probably 53 now…and still single.
    L #2: It’s called emotional blackmail, and the fact that she’s using your children to that purpose is outrageous. It’s emotional abuse to those children! Read that woman the riot act, tell her to knock it off or SHE will be out of YOUR lives.

  4. avatar dcarpend says:

    LW1, your rage is your friend. Just as pain, unwelcome though it may be, warns us that something is wrong with the body and needs to be attended to, your rage is a sign that your life has gone wildly off track. Beating down that rage and accepting the situation would be very much akin to taking painkillers so you could ignore the fact that a cancer is growing to a deadly size.

    Your mother does not love you. I’m sorry to have to tell you that, but it is true. Oh, she’s very involved with you, more than she should be, and she’ll tell you that involvement is love. But love seeks for the beloved’s growth and happiness, not to control. Your mother is terrified that you might grow up and have a life that is not centered around her — which is exactly what you need to do. Your mother will not like this. There is no way you can make her like it, any more than you can make a drug addict like it when you stop giving them money for another fix. Stop worrying about whether your mother will like it. Fight for your own life.

    Send her home — she does still have her own home, I hope? — find a job with your legal skills, and drop the civil service routine. Your mother will be upset. She will throw tantrums. She will threaten to cut you off, to hold her breath till her face turns blue, to have a heart attack and die. IGNORE HER. Hang up when she starts to order you around. If you choose to see her, cut all visits short when she starts trying to bully you. Pick up your coat and purse and LEAVE. Do not pick up your phone when she calls to continue bullying her. If she gives you the silent treatment, consider it a gift.

    You are not morally obligated to live your life to make your mother happy, especially since what makes your mother happy is infantilizing you and controlling you. Get clear: Either she will be happy or you will be. Which do you prefer?

    You need counseling and need it now, to figure out why you so willingly knuckled under and were willing to sacrifice your whole life to placate your mother. You might start seeing your fiance again, if he’s willing (I’m assuming you’re female and he’s male, just from the spelling of “fiance”, but all of this holds if you’re male, too). I’d hold off on planning a wedding until you’re clear on why you’re so willing to throw your life away to avoid your mother’s anger, and have found the strength to deal with it.

    I warn you, other family members may try to browbeat you into giving your mother what she wants. They will do this because she has turned to browbeating them, and they don’t have what it takes to hang up on her or otherwise tell her to STFU, and they want you to go back to taking the punishment for them. Keep in mind that their acceptance of your mother’s behavior is their problem, not yours. Feel free to refuse to listen to their tantrums, as well. “I’ve told you where I stand, and I’m not discussing this any longer. Goodbye.” Block phone numbers if you have to.

    By the way, there is nothing wrong with dealing with it by moving and leaving no forwarding address. Many have found the “geographic cure” very helpful.

    Again, get clear on this: Either your mother is going to be happy, or you are. Make the choice.

    • avatar bamabob says:

      I agree with 99% of what you say.  The only thing I would change is telling her to hang up on Mom when she calls and it gets to be too much.  I would change my phone number and make darn sure Mom never found out what it was.  Margo nailed it: sever all contact.  ALL contact.  You wouldn’t put up with this treatment from a stranger; there’s no reason to put up with it from family, even your mother. 

  5. avatar D says:

    It is days like this that I hope that David Bolton logs in to craft a far more entertaining response than I could ever give.

  6. avatar mac13 says:

    Having a psyco mother from hell myself, I can empathize with both letter writers. In both cases, please know, she isn’t going to change. No matter what you do. #1; once you submit to her whims, she will always have another whim. Wrong fiance? Gone. Wrong job path? Gone. When you are in civil service, she will come up with something else. Draw the line and stick with it. #2; short of tossing her out, you don’t have much recourse. If you can’t, this is what will happen. things will always come up and she will always take it out on the kids. They will grow up and never want to see her. She will complain that she never gets to see them or their children. This will be your fault. Just ask your mother. Oh wait, no. You won’t have to ask her, she will be always there letting your know how she lived there, tried to help with the kids and now what ingrates they are. In both cases BTDT.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      mac13 – yep you’re right. And this whole article plus the comments just reminds me that I’m not the only person who has parental issues.

  7. avatar Dawn Murphy says:

    Or, LW 2’s children will take a cue from Grandma’s behavior and manipulate their mother and others just as Grandma is doing. Kids are such little sponges. For their sake, this behavior and modeling has to end.

  8. avatar Claire Saenz says:

    LW#1: You write: “I now often find myself inexplicably upset…”.

    No. Your anger is not inexplicable. It makes perfect sense, and frankly something would be very wrong with you if you were not upset at your mother’s behavior. I am sure that the notion of severing all ties seems draconian to you, but I agree with everyone else that you have little choice in the matter. It truly does come down to your happiness vs. hers and it’s quite clear that you have no hope of leading a normal life as long as she is in it. Best of luck to you.

  9. avatar susan hiland says:

    LW1: Move. Simple math. Your controling freakish mother is going to drive you crazy. Get her out of your life. Do what makes you happy! If it means mummy dearest is not in your life so be it. I moved 1900 miles away from my mother because she is a controlling, judgmental, self center *itch. Funny, we have had the most lovely conversations over the last few years. Distance makes the heart grow fonder or mother less irritating. You have one life to live, live it.

  10. avatar bright eyes says:

    LW#2 Quite a Strange Granny – Wow!Your mother must be related to my mother! My mother will do the same thing – she claims her kids are her life, she loves us, etc. But when we do something she doesn’t agree on or she doesn’t want us to do – she refuses to speak with us and our kids. I have told my child in age appropriate terms why Grandma won’t speak with him right now – she’s mad at Mommy – and put it back on Grandma. Now that my child is older, he understands the words she says and that she acts that way. She doesn’t just do it to us, she does it to all family members, so he clearly sees the pattern there. And he clearly sees me telling him that is not the way to deal with conflict. He sees Mommy making decisions about how to handle herself and I hope I’m setting a better example of how to respond to conflict within a family better than my Mother is for him.
    Apparently this is what her entire family does and at any given time, there are numerous family members not talking to other family members about things that happened years ago. I decided long ago not to get caught in the family web and have taught my child the same.
    I don’t believe there is anything you can say to Granny that would get her to stop taking it out on your kids when she’s mad at you, but you can explain to the kids that Granny is upset with Mommy and hope that when you tell them but Granny still loves you although she’s mad at Mommy, that after all of this, your kids still want to spend time with her.  

  11. avatar Kathy says:

    LW1 made no sense to me – gave up a “career in law” to take a civil servant test?  That is fundamentally ridiculous.  Then I mentally “read” mom’s letter:  “My daughter has been floating for years and I am tired of supporting her.  She has a pipe dream of being a lawyer but has done nothing to make it happen.  She wants to get married to someone who is just as aimless and expects me to pay for it.  I’ve finally convinced her that she should put off marriage until she has a means of support, and encouraged her to seek government work because it’s steady.  I even had to move in with her to make sure she studied so she could pass the test. Otherwise, I know she wouldn’t do it.  I know I have been too involved in her life, but I can’t just stand by and watch her make mistakes.  Margo, help me pull back.” 

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      Of course we only get to hear one side of the story, but I suppose it depends on your perspective. I see it as – Mother is trying to take over her life and make every decision for her. I have a parent like this. My Mother’d probably write the same thing you did – “She’s floating through life, etc… ” while I’m happy doing what I do, I enjoy my job and support myself while she’d be happier if I work where she wants me to and make the decisions she wants me to.
      She feels her way would be better while I feel that it’s my life and no matter how much nagging and complaining I hear, I’m going to do what I want to do. Now, if she were paying my bills or supporting me financially, then I’d be inclined to listen to her point of view. But if you’re not supporting me, then it’s my life and I’ll live it how I want. She doesn’t know how much I make – another source of contention – so how would she know whether the job she wants for me would be a step up or a step down? Either way, it’s my decision to make. There are only so many concessions you can make in your own life to make someone else happy.

  12. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) If you put up with this, then you are bigger nut than your mom.  Read Margo’s advice over and over and over.
    2) This dilemma is bound tol end: The kids soon will learn they don’t want to get cozy with granny at any time, and they’ll make it quite clear.

    • avatar Katharine Gray says:

      Interesting that when I read letter #2 I completely blocked out my own experience with a toxic granny (who didn’t live with us thank goodness).  I vividly remember the day I was old enough to understand how she was hurting my mother who realized what she was doing but never stood up to her (or if she did, she would end up in tears after the *confrontation*).  I made a decision that day that I did not like this grandmother, would do all I could to avoid being around her and that lasted from the time I was 8 until the day she died.  Toxic granny was in the bin for the last 10 years of her life and I went only one time to see her because my mother asked me to accompany her.  Basically…from the day I saw her hurt my mother she was persona non grata in my mind.  I didn’t really *hate* her…I just wrote her off and pretended she didn’t exist. 

  13. avatar Diane Shaw says:

    Oh good heavens! What a day! Ltr. #1 – Margo is right on. She can only wear you down if you allow her to. Remove yourself from her life. It doesn’t matter what she says – it’s crazy talk so pay it no heed and don’t let it hurt you. I know you will probably miss your mother and I get that but for the sake of your sanity (not to mention living your own life) cut the cord!
    Ltr. #2 – Tell your mother that you will no longer tolerate her attitude towards your children when she is upset with you. If it continues, in an effort to protect your children you will happily find her another place to live.

  14. avatar sdpooh says:

    I think both of these letter writers should meet, then put both their mothers into an apartment as room-mates.  Then these two older ladies can spend their days trying to control each other while their daughters have a life. 

  15. avatar luna midden says:

    The Sad Part, even if you break away from these EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL ABUSERS-you still carry it and even it you have recognized it… you still will use some of their ‘bag of tricks’ -even if it is unintentional, towards your own children. I know, because I have been there, knew what my mother was doing was very wrong… said I would never do any of that, and for the most part, I DON’T, but, little things slip out….and I realized it later and of course felt very very guilty about it…. because of my upbringing. 

    Both LWs need therapy.. even though I don’t know how much is enough to bring free of the bonds of such narracisstic mothers. Mine died and I am STILL in her hold at times. And Of course, I do ask myself at times, ‘why did she try to hold on so tight, try not to allow me to have any type of life when she got married, and had kids?’ . just as many of these lws have the same situation. Fairness is not a word that these mentally sick mothers know.     

  16. avatar Davina Wolf says:

    My mother was neglectful toward me from my earliest memory and became increasingly mean to me as the years went by.  For instance, she “forgot” to meet me for planned vacation in a foreign country and “forgot” to shop for groceries and make anything to eat when I flew 3,000 miles to spend Christmas with her.  She also told me that if I ever had kids, my sister’s would “always be her favorites”, and gave my beloved cat away when I was gone for the weekend just to hurt me.  In the process of figuring out what was wrong and how I might fix it, a very good counselor told me that people like my mother don’t change for the better–they just get worse.  It turns out that my mother has narcissistic personality disorder–every psychiatric textbook also stresses people with this syndrome rarely improve.  By age 46 I was wildly depressed from my mother’s mistreatment.  Nothing that I tried helped , so after 8 years of careful consideration I terminated contact with her.  That has helped immensely, but relatives pressure me relentlessly to “make up” with my mother.  No one understands what she was like to me, and when I’ve tried to expain they makes excuses for her.  It’s easy to tell someone to terminate contact with such a toxic person, but the terminator will be skewered by most onlookers and feel motherless for the rest of her life.